More Walmarts on the Way—Raising Concerns and Boosting Efforts to Preserve Broadway’s Howard House

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It’s not just about a house.

While local opposition to a Walmart Neighborhood Market planned for North Broadway has focused on the flattening of a century-old Craftsman home, the furor has been heightened by the special animosity often inspired by Walmart. But this is only one of the new Walmart markets proposed for the region, though the other locations seem unlikely to draw the same outrage.

Opponents of the North Broadway store are hopeful that its stormwater challenges and a required zoning change will prove impossible hurdles to the project, which would take down not only the historic house but also Centerpointe Church next door.

Built in 1910, the home was lovingly maintained by owner and former Knoxville city councilman Paul Howard until his death last year. His will requires that his heirs sell it and divide the profits, and Polestar Development recently offered them $1.27 million (and made an offer of $2.3 million to Centrepointe Church). Although Howard’s son Tim solicited matching offers almost a month ago from anyone who wouldn’t knock the house down, he is no longer discussing the property with news media.

Kim Trent, executive director of Knox Heritage, says the Howard family signed a sales contract with Polestar a few weeks ago. Knox Heritage is nevertheless continuing its crowdfunding effort to buy the house as well as an online petition asking Walmart not to demolish it. Trent hopes the enthusiastic response to the petition will discourage City Council from approving a needed zoning change; denial of the zoning change could re-open the door to Knox Heritage buying the house. In the meantime, wrath at Walmart has drawn support even among those who have no particular interest in the house.

More Walmarts Planned

This is not the only Walmart Neighborhood Market likely headed to Knoxville. The same developer, Polestar, has provided preliminary sketches to the Metropolitan Planning Commission for another grocery store at the corner of Western Avenue and McKamey Road. That site, boxed between Western and Ball Camp Pike, is across various streets from two churches and The Zone sports center.

Polestar has not presented formal plans for either of the proposed stores yet, nor named them. But according to preliminary drawings, both would include a fuel center. Owners of properties that would become part of the North Broadway store and parking lot have identified the retailer as Walmart.

When contacted last week, Walmart spokesperson Amanda Henneberg responded in an email, “We have no plans to announce regarding a new store in Knoxville.”

That wouldn’t be unusual, because Walmart wouldn’t be doing the development directly. The business model is that Polestar builds the site to company specifications and then leases it to the retail tenant. Polestar is affiliated with Chattanooga-based Hutton Co., which builds stores for national chains like Family Dollar and AutoZone. According to its website, Hutton has 57 developments in Tennessee alone.

Technically, Polestar appears to be not one but a dozen limited-liability companies incorporated in Tennessee since August. They all have names that are the same, except for the swapping out of city names and identifiers [for example, “Polestar TN Sevierville (Wagner), LLC”]; all have the same company address as Hutton. In at least one case, Hutton’s general counsel is listed as the principal officer. There isn’t a Polestar Knoxville listed on the Secretary of State’s website yet. Hutton officials did not return calls for comment.

According to media reports, Polestar has been in the process of getting permits to construct what appear to be dozens of small grocery stores across Tennessee and Georgia since last summer, including one in Kingsport, two in Murfreesboro, and three in Chattanooga. Those that have been identified are all Walmart Neighborhood Markets.

Walmart announced in February 2014 its intent to double the expansion pace of its small neighborhood markets, which sell primarily groceries and are designed to serve residents within a much more local radius (often just a mile) than its supercenters.

Polestar also plans a store in Sevierville at 1185 Dolly Parton Parkway, on property owned by radio manufacturer TEN-TEC, which, according to its website, was bought earlier this month by RKR Designs of Colorado. The Sevierville Board of Zoning Appeals approved several variances to allow the Polestar project to have fewer parking spaces and loading docks than the city’s current rules generally require.

Some oppose the North Broadway project mostly to fend off Walmart for the same reasons that have catalyzed locals elsewhere: It’s viewed as a bully mega-corporation that builds ugly stores and drives out local business.

A small curbside demonstration was held in front of the Howard House earlier this month by those who want to protect it, (inadvertently) prompting many passing drivers and pedestrians to yell epithets about Walmart, says organizer Paul Duggan, a Knoxville native who publicized the protest on Facebook.

Many of the more than 7,300 people who have signed the petition opposing the destruction of the Howard house focus less on it than what could replace it. Heather Gaburo, of San Diego, signed because “the world has too many Walmarts.” Many out-of-town signers used less flattering, two-word messages to share their thoughts about the retail giant.

Amy Broyles, the Knox County Commissioner who represents the area, says about 40 people attended a meeting she organized a few weeks ago to provide information about the project and help opponents organize. She says those fighting the project mostly fall into two sometimes overlapping groups: those passionate about saving the historic structure and those who despise Walmart.

Broyles herself says she is “not a fan of Walmart” because she thinks the company doesn’t treat its employees well and causes environmental and economic damage. She is particularly concerned about the effect on existing businesses, such as the two grocery stores that are within a few blocks of the site and the locally owned Three Rivers Market, also nearby.

Charlie Thomas, who lives within a mile of the proposed Walmart site (making him part of its target market), agrees. “It just seems to be something we don’t need,” he says. “Everything [about it] is negative. We’ve got grocery stores and retail and people that have invested in the community for a long time, and I think we need a prettier corridor with less traffic and no danger to the creek … more than we need a Walmart.”

Thomas also serves on the Broadway Corridor Task Force, a group that seeks to make visual improvements to the corridor, and from that perspective he also wonders how a new Walmart would affect traffic and the appearance of the area.

Down the Drainage

But a future Walmart can’t be built on the site without changing the zoning of the Howard house from office to commercial. This would require approval by the Metropolitan Planning Commission and City Council.

The house, once one of many stately residential homes lining Broadway, is already surrounded by commercial development. The MPC’s sector plan for the area calls for mixed use, and the one-year plan calls for commercial use. In the long term, the sector plan also suggests replacing general commercial zoning with an overlay requiring design-oriented zoning that might include, for example, small front-yard setbacks and other features “to enhance the pedestrian experience.”

The zoning change is likely to be the biggest hurdle for Polestar, but stormwater drainage may also present challenges, because the site backs up to the 500-year flood plain of First Creek.

Although the stretch of Broadway near the Howard house is mostly commercial, the historic Oakwood-Lincoln Park neighborhood is across First Creek from the property, with several houses in the 500-year floodplain.

Thomas, who is active in the Oakwood-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, says that is a concern for those living closest to the creek.

“It wasn’t that long ago that there were people who could literally canoe on Broadway,” he recalls. “The creek has had tremendous flooding problems. A lot have been remedied at a lot of expense and effort by the city around Fairmont and Emoriland, and I’m afraid this may jeopardize the benefit of that.”

In the last few years, the city spent millions to straighten a couple of deep curves in the creek to increase the flow and prevent the flooding of streets and homes.

Thomas says he is also worried about how the project could affect First Creek Greenway, which he helped establish, and its planned northward expansion.

Polestar had an informal meeting with city engineering officials last week to discuss its ideas for the site, which includes a 9-foot retaining wall above First Creek in its floodway, but no stormwater retention pond. Generally, a floodway is the area next to a creek that must be preserved to prevent a rise of more than a foot in the water surface level. But city storm-water engineer David MicGinley says building the retaining wall in the floodway won’t necessarily cause a foot rise in the water level there.

On the other hand, current rules usually require a 60-foot buffer of undisturbed vegetation from the top of the creek bank or the floodway, says Chris Howley, who supervises plan review and development inspections for the city engineering department.

The developer would be required to prevent stormwater runoff from increasing—or prove that it would actually be better for the creek if stormwater flowed out all at once, McGinley says.

Even without space for a holding pond, there are other tools for reducing runoff. For example, parking lots can be built using pavers that allow water to penetrate, or underground storm-water tanks can be installed, Howley says. (Another creative option is planting a grass roof on the building.)

McGinley points out that the majority of the site—the church portion—is already covered in buildings or pavement.

“There are hurdles associated with the development, but I didn’t see any deal-killers,” Howley says.

A Second Bite

Trent says Knox Heritage plans to fight rezoning of the Howard house while raising money to buy it. She predicts the zoning question will end up in City Council’s lap, which is part of the reason for sponsoring the petition—she wants to be able to convey to local politicians just how many people oppose the project.

Mark Campen, the city councilman representing that part of North Broadway, says he has no position yet on the rezoning. “My heart and love for historic preservation is not to allow rezoning,” he says. “But from a legal and property-rights standpoint, the family has every right to do what they want with their house.”

Many who love the house acknowledge they’d have trouble turning down more than a million dollars. But without the zoning change, the house seems unlikely to sell so high. It’s appraised by the Knox County Assessor at $392,800 and Zillow’s market estimate is $370,000.

“If the rezoning is denied, there’s a chance that will kill the [Polestar] contract, and I think that will offer a second bite at the apple to those who want to save it,” Trent says.

An anonymous donor offered Knox Heritage $100,000 toward the purchase of the house if other donors will match it, but the online campaign has raised less than $8,000 so far. Trent says she had hoped for better and is scheduling meetings with potential donors.

If the effort doesn’t raise enough to save the Howard house, the donations will go toward buying other historic properties using Knox Heritage’s J. Allen Smith Endangered Properties Fund, Trent says. “This really is a poster child for why that fund is important,” she says, because the fund would enable Knox Heritage to buy the house, add a historic preservation easement to protect it permanently, then sell it at a loss, if necessary.

She says the Howard house has “rocketed to the top” of her group’s priorities because of the tight timeline and community response. “The social media aspect of the reaction—” Trent pauses. “We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Trent says some people have asked why the house couldn’t be moved. She says it’s too large and it would require dropping utility lines along Broadway at great expense. “It happened in Georgia with a Walmart development, but those were much smaller houses,” she says.

There’s still time for fundraising. It will likely take months for the MPC and City Council to vote on the zoning change after Polestar submits its plans. Plus, the city appears less than a month away from enacting a new policy that would freeze demolitions of historic houses for 60 days after the permit request. City Council is scheduled to first read the ordinance, which has been long in the works, at its May 12 meeting, with a possible vote to follow May 26. The policy is designed to delay destruction of buildings like the Howard house that are historic but lack special protective historic designation.

Broyles says local neighborhood associations from Old North to Bearden are mobilizing together for the first time in an effort to get the word out about the project. Broyles and Duggan are encouraging opponents to contact the planning commission and City Council members. A door-to-door, neighborhood-by-neighborhood information campaign is in the works, Broyles says. The next meeting of the newly-dubbed North Knoxville Community Coalition will be May 17 at 4 p.m. at Central United Methodist Church, to discuss the next steps in saving the house, she says.

“Imagine someone going up Kingston Pike and taking over all these beautiful houses and putting stores and restaurants in,” says Duggan, who lives on the opposite side of the county but sees historic properties endangered everywhere. “What’s to stop them? If residents won’t stop them from tearing down the Howard house, who’s to say they could stop anything?”

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at

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